These words, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home”, were written in the mid-19th century by John Howard Payner. They were most probably intended to reinforce acceptance of the huge inequalities of the class system, but his short poem also highlights the value to most people of having somewhere to eat, sleep and raise their families that they can call their own.
It is therefore shocking to read the latest statistics that 140,000 children in England will spend Christmas without a home. Section 21 evictions, enabling landlords to evict renters at short notice without having to give a reason, are a leading cause of homelessness. It marks an increase of 14% – an extra 38,000 people, compared to last year. Government figures indicate that nearly half of families currently in temporary accommodation such as hostels, B&Bs or bedsits, have been there for two years.
That the fifth richest nation in the world cannot find homes for 140,000 of its children is nothing short of scandalous. It speaks volumes about greed, economic mismanagement, and the failure of the capitalist system. It also shows that a recognition of the need to provide decent homes for the population has fallen far down the list of priorities of successive governments.
This has not always been the case. For the post-war government, the provision of new council housing was a top priority and, of the 2.5 million new houses and flats built up to 1957, 75% were local authority owned. In many towns and cities temporary accommodation was provided by prefabricated houses. Altogether 156,000 were built during this time.
My parents often talked about their delight when they were finally able to leave what was referred to as ‘living in rooms’, one room and a bedroom in someone else’s home, to a prefab, built as part of Cardiff’s housebuilding programme in the 1950s. Along with the new temporary houses an infrastructure was developed; shops and schools within walking distance from the homes, and there was a cheap and regular bus service.
The homes themselves were built on big plots of land with large gardens to grow vegetables. They were light with modern kitchens that even included a refrigerator, a real luxury at that time. Yes, they were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but they provided a sense of ownership, community and safety for that war-torn generation.
Of course, there is a risk of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. It is true that the post-war government had a huge mountain to climb. The war had brought house building to a standstill, and 475,000 homes had been destroyed or made uninhabitable.
Unfortunately, the slum clearance programme was stopped In the 1950s, and the impact of this decision was captured by the photographer Nick Hedges. His images, taken between 1968 and 1972, caused shock waves across Britain, as many had bought into the optimistic narrative of Harold Wilson’s government.
Hedges’ work focused on communities living in abject poverty and dire housing conditions in cities including Glasgow, Salford, Bradford, Liverpool, and Newcastle. His images captured the struggles of families living in slums, often framed by the rubble of condemned neighbouring buildings, ill health, and destitution.
Harold Wilson’s government made some attempt to have an impact on this situation. He chose to prioritise housing, achieving the best housebuilding figures in the last century, hitting a peak in both public and private housebuilding at the same time of over 400,000 new homes in one year. The ambition was also there in manifesto commitments. Development land would be publicly-owned, and profits retained by the community. Interest rates for housing borrowers would be subsidised and councils would be able to make 100% mortgages available. The Rent Acts would be repealed, old houses would be modernised, and, if landlords failed to do so, the houses would be purchased by the council.
Of course, the housing crisis was not solved. But, unlike today, people were still capable of being shocked by images of poverty, homelessness, and destitution. The Labour Government still recognised that a home was a fundamental human right and put steps in place to make this a reality.
The fact that 140,000 children will be homeless this Christmas is not an accident or the inevitable consequence of some worldwide economic problem. It is the result of 13 years of Tory mismanagement and a callous disregard for the wellbeing of its citizens.
It would be nice to be able to reassure these children that their lives will be very different next Christmas if a Labour Government is elected. Sadly, going on Keir Starmer’s warnings about how little they will be able to achieve, I doubt it.